A bid by Somali pirates to hijack a luxury cruise ship was foiled by an international taskforce, officials said today, as ransom negotiations for a Saudi super-tanker stretched into overtime.
A spokesman for the Danish navy, the current lead nation in the NATO taskforce, confirmed the operation had stopped a group of pirates from boarding a civilian vessel which reports said was carrying some 400 passengers and 200 crew.
“The (Danish) navy’s tactical command on Sunday (local time) led a military operation, dispatching a vessel from the coalition to the aid of a civilian ship threatened by pirates, thereby preventing an act of piracy,” Danish navy spokesman Jesper Lynge said.
Mr Lynge said it was up to the countries involved to give details of the cruise ship involved.
But according to Danish TV2 News, six to eight armed pirates on two speed boats were observed speeding toward the Nautica, a cruiseliner that had set sail from Florida.
A French navy warship, alerted by the Danish Navy, scrambled a helicopter to the scene, which sent the pirates fleeing, TV2 News said.
The attempt on the Nautica underscored the growing audacity of hijackers operating off the coast of largely lawless Somalia, a fortnight after they hijacked a Saudi super-tanker which was fully laden with oil.
The hijackers of the super-tanker had set a November 30 deadline for the owners of the vessel to pay a $US25 million ($38.26 million) ransom.
But with no news of a breakthrough in the negotiations with owners Vela International, the shipping arm of oil giant Saudi Aramco, the pirates said today they were still ready to negotiate its release.
“We are no longer giving any ultimatum, but we will continue to be open for negotiations,” the leader, Mohamed Said, the leader of the group hodling the ship, said.
“The owners of the tanker must engage with the right people.
“Any kind of negotiations with a third party will be futile and will not end the hostage crisis,” the pirate leader said, adding: “Our aim is not to hurt the crew members or damage the ship.”
The 330-metre Sirius Star was carrying two million barrels of crude oil and 25 crew when it was seized on November 15.
The pirates had warned of “disastrous” consequences should the owners fail to comply with their demands.
Said said overnight: “We are being informed that the owners of the tanker were discussing the matter of the release with the powerless Somali government, which does not represent us. Anybody who wants a solution must talk to us.”
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was quoted in a Saudi newspaper overnight as saying that the tanker would be freed without a ransom.
“It is not true that the hijackers have demanded a ransom of millions of dollars to release it,” he told the Saudi newspaper Okaz.
“We are confident that efforts made by tribal leaders and government officials will result soon in releasing the ship without any ransom.”
Mr Yusuf’s beleaguered government controls only a few parts of Somalia and has not made any attempt to crack down on piracy, which has thrived in recent months and injected millions of dollars in the coastal economy.
The presence of foreign navies is intended to retore confidence among shipping companies, many of whom are now re-routing to sail around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa.
The Russian Navy said overnight that one of its frigates Neustrashimy (Fearless) had escorted three vessels through the Horn of Africa overnight.
The announcement came after Somali pirates said that a deal for the release of an arms-laden Ukrainian cargo ship that they seized more than two months ago has been reached and that the release was expected within days.
Meanwhile the Japanese Shipowners’ Association said overnight the country’s shipping industry would incur more than $US100 million in extra costs if its vessels change their routes to avoid Somalia’s pirate-infested waters.